In 2015, I was in Los Angeles for the annual Online News Association Conference. It meant that as a Michigan native, I was up at 9:00 am PST to watch the Wolverines obliterate BYU 31-0 in a college football game that had a noon kickoff on East Coast time. That was also the day that I understood the craziness of time zones and start times for sporting events. Eight years later, the NBA has heard the cries of everyone who lives in Eastern and Central Time.

When the NBA conference finals start tonight — first with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets, followed by the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics on Wednesday — it will be a sign that Adam Silver understands how tired basketball fans have been every morning for the past few weeks, as start times for the rest of the postseason will be earlier.

Tuesday night’s ESPN broadcast of the Lakers/Nuggets game in Denver will start at 8:30 p.m. EST/7:30 p.m. CST, while Wednesday night’s TNT’s Heat/Celtics game will air at the same time.

This means that the Western Conference finals will begin at 6:30 p.m. when the games are in Denver and 5:30 pm when they’re played in L.A. If you live out there it might be smart to find a good happy hour spot after work where you can catch the games.

It’s also been announced that the NBA Finals will follow the same pattern, with the caveat that Game 2 and Game 7 — if necessary — will begin at 8:00 p.m. EST instead of 8:30 p.m. because they will be played on Sundays.

The NBA listens to its fans

“Our fans told us that earlier starts for Finals games are simply better for them,” Gregg Winik, NBA president, Content and Executive Producer wrote in a statement. “We’re excited to work with ABC to present the 2023 NBA Finals at a more optimal viewing time.”

“We’re proud to work closely with our NBA partners to deliver the NBA Finals on ABC for the 21st consecutive season,” said Julie Sobieski, ESPN senior vice president, Programming & Acquisitions in the same press release. “Our best-in-class coverage team is ready to showcase all of the action and excitement, now at earlier start times for fans.”

Is this an example of East Coast bias? Probably. But, it’s also good business, as the league is capitalizing on an exciting postseason that’s given it a much-needed ratings boost.

According to SportsMediaWatch, back in February, one of the league’s marquee events — the 2023 NBA All-Star Game — only averaged a combined 2.2 rating and 4.59 million viewers across TNT and TBS, making it the least-watched edition of the game. The report went on to say that the NFL Pro Bowl and MLB All-Star Game brought in bigger crowds. It was the last thing the league needed after not being able to crack the most-watched broadcast list of 2022. The highest-rated matchup from last season was Game 6 of the NBA Finals, which came in at 108th.

NBA playoff ratings are up

Things have started to turn around. According to the league, Game 7 of the Warriors/Kings series averaged 9.8 million viewers, making it the most-watched first-round NBA playoff game in 24 years. It was also ABC’s largest audience for a non-NBA Finals postseason game ever. The Warriors are always good for ratings. And last Thursday’s Game 6 between the Sixers and Celtics averaged 6.20 million viewers and was the most-watched game of the playoffs that did not involve the Warriors, according to Sports Media Watch.

And on Monday, the league announced that the Lakers and Warriors gave us the most-watched conference semifinals in almost 30 years.

Earlier start times allow for more sleep and can increase ratings. Now the NBA is praying for the next domino to fall in their favor — a Lakers/Celtics Finals matchup, which would be the 13th time Los Angeles and Boston were the last two teams, and time zones, standing. 

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